In the earliest decades of this nation -- before this nation was even a nation -- four waves of settlers arrived from Britain. The first three waves landed in New England, the Southern Colonies and the Middle Colonies, respectively, and each defined the culture of its own region. The fourth wave came in mostly through the Middle Colonies, but it didn't stay there. Instead, it migrated inland, into the Appalachian mountain range. It spread south, then west, through the Tennessee River Valley. It crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And because of its greater willingness to migrate, it's reached into almost every corner of this country.
The fact that this culture has, to a greater or lesser degree, influenced almost every part of America, doesn't mean that it is America. It's only one color in the mosaic. Yet it claims a monopoly on "American values," and incredibly, the media let it get away with that.
Here's why the media are wrong.
We have two dominant political parties. Each of those parties is built upon two of the four primary waves of migration from Britain that defined America in its earliest years. Historian David Hackett Fischer, in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, identifies these waves as:
- Puritans, who settled in New England;
- Cavaliers, who settled in Virginia;
- Quakers, who settled in the Delaware River Valley; and
- Borderers, who settled in the "backcountry," as Appalachia and the Highland South were termed back then.
These four waves weren't the only immigrants to bring their cultures to America -- there were also Dutch colonists and Jews in the Hudson River Valley, French colonists in Louisiana and Maine, Catholics in Maryland and Huguenots in South Carolina -- but they came to dominate American culture and politics, for two reasons. First, they held not just local power but regional power. Second, they migrated westward.
Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, politics revolved on a Puritan–Cavalier axis. The Civil War was fought, essentially, between Puritan abolitionists and Cavalier slaveholders. But in the late 19th century, the descendants of Quakers and Borderers settled the West, while the descendants of Puritans and Cavaliers mostly stayed east of the Mississippi River. Consequently, the balance of power began to shift, and the four cultures found themselves on more equal footing. Today, if anything, the Quaker and Borderer strains in our culture and politics are stronger nationwide than the Puritan and Cavalier strains. Since the political realignment of the 1960s, we have essentially had a Northern Party (the Quaker–Puritan Democrats) and a Southern Party (the Borderer–Cavalier Republicans), with the Great Plains and the Mountain West leaning toward the Republicans until just recently.
Knowing all this, we can begin to analyze what's going on in politics right now. Let's begin with an interesting artifact from the 2008 presidential election:
I find this map endlessly fascinating. Nominally, this is a plot of counties that voted "more Republican" in 2008 than in 2004. But what's striking about it to me is that it tracks, almost exactly, the settlement patterns of Borderers in America. In other words, non-Borderers were drawn into the Democratic Party by Barack Obama and/or repelled by John McCain; Borderers responded in the opposite way. In an earlier diary, I characterized this electoral phenomenon as a wide-scale rejection of the "president as warlord" concept. But today I want to explore a different set of implications of this voting pattern, because now we have some new data points: the behavior of the "teabaggers" and 9/12 Movement, the rise of Glenn Beck and this weekend's Values Voters' Summit.
My hypothesis is this: Despite retaining some Cavalier-esque aristocratic attitudes toward wealth and privilege (and extramarital sex), the Republican Party -- at least, its base of "movement conservatives" -- has essentially become one and the same with Borderer culture. Its platform is Borderer in nature, its values are Borderer, its means of self-expression are Borderer. Yet the media continue to treat the party and the movement as if they represented approximately half the nation.
Who Are the Borderers?
For 700 years, the kings of Scotland and England violently disputed the borderlands between the two countries, while warlords on both sides of the border fought among themselves, the strife ceasing only briefly under the 17th-century reign of James VI. This resulted in the creation of a tenancy system designed to maintain reserves of fighting men for local nobles. The lack of established authority created a power vacuum that was exploited by criminals, including whole outlaw clans that prospered by banditry and rustling livestock. The perennial violence made the region wretchedly poor. It also intensified the importance of blood relationships; loyalty to family and clan were valued more highly than loyalty to the crown. With little or no trust in established authority, borderers resolved disputes through retaliation and payment of blood money.
When the region was pacified in the 17th century, entire clans were executed or banished -- and many of the banished clans made their way to America. "The so-called Scotch-Irish who came to America thus included a double-distilled selection of some of the most disorderly inhabitants of a deeply disordered land," Fischer writes in Albion's Seed (630). Meanwhile, back in Britain, old warrior families were replaced by capitalist entrepreneurs who exploited the region's people as laborers and miners rather than fighters, and rack-renting and eviction became common. This led to even more Borderer migration to American shores.
Unlike the Puritans and Quakers, who sought religious freedom in the colonies, and the Cavaliers, who simply wanted big landholdings and couldn't get them back in England, "[t]hese new emigrants came mainly in search of material betterment," Fischer writes of the Borderers, the majority of whom were tenant farmers or farm laborers. "In the early 18th century, many surveys of their motives found the same pattern of concern about high rents, low wages, heavy taxes and short leases" (611). (We see echoes of this today in the teabaggers' tax protests.)
Conflicts between the newly arrived Borderers and the Quakers who resided around the Borderers' primary ports of entry, Philadelphia and Newcastle, Del., encouraged the Borderers to move upland into the Appalachian mountain range and south into Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, then across what was then the "Southwest" -- Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. In the 19th century, they crossed the Mississippi River and migrated into Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. These areas were already populated by proud and fierce Native American nations that tried to fight off the new settlers, creating a new environment of perpetual strife to replace the one the borderers left behind in Britain. "Much of the southern highlands were 'debatable lands' in the border sense of a contested territory without established government or the rule of law," Fischer writes. "The Borderers were more at home than others in this anarchic environment, which was well suited to their family system, their warrior ethic, their farming and herding economy, their attitudes toward land and wealth and their ideas of work and power" (639)
Borderers who rose to prominence in early America include Andrew Jackson, whose hair-trigger temper resulted in his fighting no fewer than 13 duels, and who personally negotiated treaties with Native American nations, then stabbed them in the back with his "Indian removal" (read: ethnic cleansing) policies; James K. Polk, who concocted a story about a raid that killed 11 U.S. soldiers in order to justify starting the Mexican-American War; and John C. Calhoun, the nation's leading proponent of state nullification.
In their religion, the Borderers were a mix of Scottish Presbyterians, English Anglicans and members of other small Protestant sects, with "a strong tendency toward what was called New Light Christianity in the 18th century" -- gathering in field meetings and prayer groups, practices they brought with them to the American backcountry. Today's crossroads megachurches on the outskirts of town may perhaps be seen as having their origins in these field meetings.
Incidentally, the disconnect between Christian worship and Christian behavior is nothing new, as Fischer observes:
Many denominations were planted in the wilderness, but various groups of Presbyterians outnumbered all others, and outrivaled them in religious bigotry. . . . When [an English missionary] tried to conduct an Anglican sermon in the back settlements, Presbyterians disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation before a service of Communion. (617)
Today's Republicans: The Borderer Party
The more we study the Borderers' folkways in Britain and in America, the more we see how thoroughly the Republican Party has adopted this culture's worldview and purged itself of incompatible elements.
To begin with, right-wing authoritarianism has fertile soil in two aspects of Borderer rank ways: "tanistry" and "macocracy." Tanistry is the selection of a "thane," or warlord, to lead a clan. "By the rule of tanistry, one man . . . was chosen to head the family: he who was strongest, toughest and most cunning," Fischer writes. "The winner became the elder of his family or clan, and was honored with deference and deep respect. The losers were degraded and despised" (694). The Borderers had no fixed social order, and they treated all outsiders alike, with what was seen as "insolence," "impudence," "forwardness," "familiarity," "unruliness," "licentiousness" and "pride" (755) -- in other words, an absence of protocol, displayed recently by South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson during a speech by President Obama. But within their own society, the Borderers did have a stratified system of social status based primarily on two factors: fighting prowess and wealth.
At the top of this system was [an] elite [that] rapidly acquired a firm hold on wealth and power throughout the region. They owned a large part of the best lands and held most of the top military and political officers. . . . This backcountry elite was not distinguished by learning, breeding, intellect or refinement. In consequence, its eminence was always directly contingent upon its wealth and power. . . . The result was a highly materialistic system of social rank. (Fischer 755–56)
"Macocracy" is a coinage derived from the "Mac-" prefix on the names of Scottish clans, defined by Fischer as "a structure of highly personal politics without deference to social rank" (772). In other words, it's not a man's title that gives him power, but rather his personal leadership and ability to influence others. Charismatic leaders drew fanatical personal followings among Borderers, who placed a heavy premium on personal loyalty. We see this in elected officials' deference to media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to organizational leaders such as James Dobson and to political operatives such as Karl Rove.
Also, Borderer culture was intensely conformist. Those who broke the rules of Borderer society were "hated out," or ostracized; "[d]eviance from cultural norms was rarely tolerated[, and] opposition was suppressed by force" (781). The Borderers' libertarian conception of freedom did not include the right to disagree or dissent.
This combination of cultural factors produces a political culture in which people can take marching orders and "talking points" and follow them day in and day out without deviation; in which mores are mutually reinforced (I saw this firsthand at a town hall meeting, where one attendee told another who spoke of something broadcast on local news, "You're supposed to watch Fox News") and dissenters are shunned; in which loyalty is prized over merit; and in which people may frequently defer to the wealthy simply because of their wealth, even in contravention of their own interests.
Today's Republican Party tolerates inequality of wealth because Borderers have historically experienced more of it than any other culture in America. Despite the myth of the meritocratic, sweat-of-one's-brow frontier, the backcountry was characterized by "a system of landholding characterized by a large landless underclass of tenants and squatters, a middle class that was small by comparison with other colonies, and a few very rich landlords," Fischer writes.
With some exceptions, landed wealth was always highly concentrated throughout the Southern highlands, as it would be in the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas and the far Southwest. Inequality was greater in the backcountry and the Southern highlands than in any other rural region of the United States. (749)
Violence has pervaded Borderer life for literally a thousand years. Rather than place their trust in the political systems that exploited them, Borderers developed their own system of retributive justice and vigilantism, one which punished property crimes far more severely than crimes against people: a rustler might be hanged, while the rapist of a young girl might be fined a shilling (768). Here we see the roots of American "gun culture," the attitude that shooting trespassers is acceptable and the prioritization of property rights over civil liberties. We also see a tolerance of violent acts in general, from domestic violence to abortion-clinic murders to shooting wolves from airplanes.
The combination of lex talionis, poverty and constant warfare meant that fighting prowess was one of the few areas in which a Borderer man could distinguish himself. Thus, we see an endless willingness to spend any amount of money on the military; a lust for military retaliation against any nation or group that offends our national honor, let alone actually harms Americans; an admiration of military virtues that borders on worship; and a worship that borders on the militant. This, too, is nothing new: "Military metaphors abounded in backcountry sermons and hymns. Prayers were invoked for vengeance and the destruction of enemies" (618).
From the beginning, the political mood in the Highland South was one of insecurity and anxiety. "The people of this region were intensely resistant to change and suspicious of 'foreigners,'" Fischer writes, "foreigners" meaning not only anyone of a different nationality but anyone not from the immediate area.
All the world seemed foreign to the backsettlers except their neighbors and kin. The people of the southern highlands would become famous in the 19th century for the intensity of their xenophobia, and also for the violence of its expression. . . . In the 20th century they would become intensely negrophobic and antisemitic. (650)
Here, then, we see the origin of the toxic meme that only Borderers and those who conform to Borderer values are "real Americans" and that African-Americans, Latin Americans, Jews, Muslims, liberals, coast-dwellers, freethinkers, etc. are not, as well as the
willingness eagerness to go to war against Iraq because we had been attacked by a group of Saudis operating from a base in Afghanistan. (In this case, for some reason, New Yorkers did qualify as real Americans -- perhaps because it offered an excuse to fight.)
We mock the rampant misspellings on the teabaggers' and 9/12ers' protest signs, but you can bet that's not going to change, nor will the left ever make any headway by harping on it, because that, too, is part of Borderer culture. "The backcountry was an oral culture in which writing was less important than the spoken word," Fischer notes. "The backsettlers maintained an attitude of cultivated contempt for orthography" (718).
However, throughout U.S. history, average levels of formal schooling in the Highland South have been the lowest anywhere in the nation. In the backcountry, there was no tradition of public schooling; back in Britain, formal education had been reserved for only the most promising young boys, not offered to the masses. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, by the Republican disdain for public education or the fruits of intellectual endeavor.
Finally, there's the issue of sexism. "There was very little equality between husbands and wives in the British borderlands or the American backcountry," Fischer points out. "Backcountry families were decidedly male-dominant . . . . The male was expected to be the head of the household; his consort was required to do his bidding quietly, cheerfully and without complaint" (677). Old matriarchs might be respected and even feared, but the head of the clan was always male. It was not uncommon for a man to abduct a woman for his bride, and women's value lay in their ability to do hard work and bear big, strong and healthy boys. The men were even served first at the dinner table.
Yet in what may be the most incredible example of Borderer intracultural dissonance, both men's and women's clothing were cut to accentuate their sexuality: women wore "a full bodice with deep décolletage, tight-fitted waist, short full skirt and a hem worn high above the ankle," while men's shirts were "cut full in the chest and shoulders, with broad seams that ran horizontally across the front and back, and . . . drawn or 'cinched' tightly at the waist. The effect was to enlarge the shoulders and the chest" (732–33). The Borderers also displayed a degree of sexual freedom that appalled Americans of other cultures, and premarital sex and pregnancy were rampant.
Is this where the "Republican = Borderer" equation breaks down? True, no one can reasonably point to the Republican Party as the "pro–promiscuity and early pregnancy party." But here's an interesting fact: For all the Republicans' family-values talk, the Highland South remains the region of the country where teen pregnancy rates are highest. In fact, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense: If you look around you and see social disorder everywhere, of course you're going to panic and look to someone to save you from it. (If you live in another part of the country and don't see that degree of social disorder, of course, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.) It's also telling that, for all the talk of abstinence and purity pledges and so forth, when teen pregnancy happens under one's own roof, suddenly it's no longer a threat to the social order but rather a chance to show your love and forgiveness! Plus, you also have folks like Carrie Prejean, Sara Evans, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and E.D. Hill representing your movement, so there's obviously something simmering under the surface there. (It may be worth noting here that the C Street scandal does not suggest a Borderer connection -- such philandering is much more in the Cavalier style.)
The Borderer connection is perhaps clearest on issues related to sexual orientation. In a society where sexual differences are magnified and men are dominant, same-sex relationships will by necessity provoke troublesome questions, male-male relationships most of all, since they reject the axiom of masculine dominance and even the definition of masculinity itself. When conservatives talk about "defending marriage," could it be that what they mean is defending marriage as an unequal institution? Or, simply, defending sex roles that are unambiguous and clearly divided? Either hypothesis would also explain the conservative hostility toward feminism.
With this history in mind, if we look at the agenda of the Values Voters' Summit, what we see suddenly leaps out as a litany of Borderer preoccupations:
SPEECHLESS - SILENCING THE CHRISTIANS
THUGOCRACY - FIGHTING THE VAST LEFT WING CONSPIRACY
DEFUNDING PLANNED PARENTHOOD
ACTIVISM AND CONSERVATISM: FIT TO A TEA (PARTY)
THE THREAT OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
OBAMACARE: RATIONING YOUR LIFE AWAY
MARRIAGE: WHY IT'S WORTH DEFENDING AND HOW REDEFINING IT THREATENS RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
THE NEW MASCULINITY [The phrase that inspired me to write this diary. --GaW]
WAIT NO MORE: FINDING FAMILIES FOR WAITING KIDS
TURNING THE TIDE IN YOUR GENERATION
And the paranoia about Barack Obama's presidency becomes clear as day: He's a successful, African-American, peace-loving, cool-tempered, inner-light intellectual in a partnership of equals with a strong, professional wife . . . and he shows great personal leadership and ability to influence others and inspire loyalty. He's an excellent thane -- leading the enemy. No wonder they're terrified.
Except he's not just leading the "enemy." He's leading all of us.
And the Republicans are scoring points by convincing their Borderer base that he isn't.
The Big Picture
The Republican Party is the party of the South, in culture if not in literal geography. It represents the descendants of the Borderers and the Cavaliers -- but the only vestige of Cavalier influence is the whiff of aristocracy surrounding the party's coddling of the financial industry. And, erm, C Street. In other respects, the Borderers are running the show, and they won't yield an inch to anyone, even their own allies. In 1905, an author named Emma Miles quoted an Appalachian woman who declared with pride, "We never let go of a belief once fixed in our minds." Well, there ya go.
The Democratic Party is the party of the North -- and the Southwest. Latin American migration -- which, unlike earlier migrations, has not assimilated into preexisting English cultures -- appears to be tipping the scales in favor of the party that represents the descendants of Quakers and Puritans (and New Yorkers, who never saw any reason to go anywhere else). The Democratic Party is also the party of African-Americans, both Northern and Southern.
"We surround them!" crows Glenn Beck. He's bluffing, and he knows it in his gut, if not in his head. It's the Borderers who are surrounded, even though they've migrated to nearly every corner of the nation. Last year, after enduring eight years of so-called leadership by George W. Bush, the biggest Borderer wannabe ever to don a folksy accent and crotch-enhancing flightsuit, the rest of America repudiated Borderer politics. Decisively. Look at that map up top. Everywhere that isn't red, people voted more Democratic than they did in 2004. Even in the Cavalier Coastal South.
So why do the media persist in attributing so much influence to movement conservatives and strength to the Republican Party? It's simple:
The media see two dominant parties or three political categories (liberal/moderate/conservative, Democrat/independent/Republican) and assume that they must be of equivalent strength. Therefore, if a Republican makes a statement on a show, or if a "conservative" event takes place, they must represent between one-third and one-half of the country. Plus, since the Republican Party has the reputation of being "tougher" than the Democratic Party, if it's fighting, it must be winning.
Nice logic, but it's wrong. Here's the real situation:
The Republican Party has become the captive of a single cultural faction that is unwilling to compromise and unable to moderate its anxiety-warped view of the world. The rest of the nation is fed up with this faction and wants to move forward, not anxiously cling to the past. The teabagger protests, 9/12 movement and other antics of the right wing are the spasms of a culture that never learned to look toward the future and sees every "other" as an enemy. It fights because it doesn't know what else to do.
You know that loudmouth guy at the bar who talks so much smack that eventually even his best buddy backs away from him and lets him fend for himself? Who keeps trying to get someone to take it outside? Who everyone walks on eggshells around because he acts so crazy and they're afraid he's just sober enough to lay someone out if he gets the chance? Who everyone tries to placate, when in reality all they need to do is ignore him and let him tire himself out?
That's today's Republican Party -- not a political superpower, not the last defender of Real American Values, just a nuisance that knows it will lose the last of its power when it can no longer draw attention to itself.
So please, O pundits of the Beltway, take a cue from President Obama and give the Republican Party what it needs and deserves:
[Update -- Barack Obama brush-off pic removed because I topped out my Photobucket bandwidth. Oops!]